I recently attended Iowa Conservation Partnership Day at the state Capitol in Des Moines. Soil and water conservation district commissioners from across Iowa, along with leaders of conservation partner agencies, met with state legislators to discuss conservation and water quality policy and programs.
The theme of this year’s event was “Life in the Soil: Dig Deeper,” and it included displays highlighting conservation projects in watersheds and regions around the state. Displays highlighted how funds are used for technical assistance, wetlands, cost-share, urban and agricultural conservation practices, and more.
The most talked about topic in the discussions that day had to do with the progress of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. There are many differing opinions on how the strategy is being carried out to improve water quality. This voluntary statewide program was finalized in 2013. In the five years since, there has been significant work accomplished by farmers, landowners, communities and other stakeholders in putting conservation and water quality protection practices to work on the land to achieve the plan’s water quality goals.
Widespread participation needed
The strategy’s nutrient reduction goals — to reduce total nitrogen and phosphorus loads in water by at least 45% — are doable, but this is a huge task. It will take every farmer participating in some way, using water quality protection practices, to make this plan successful.
There is ongoing disagreement as to whether a voluntary program can reach the strategy’s goals of reducing nitrate and phosphorus loads in Iowa streams, lakes and rivers by 45%. Some people, including many nonfarmers, think farmers and landowners should be required to use certain practices such as no-till and cover crops if they want to qualify to receive conservation cost-share payments.
Jerry Crew, a longtime no-till farmer in northwest Iowa, says, “The way the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is being implemented is wrong! The current emphasis on [Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program] practices and bioreactors is expensive and will never solve the problem unless most of Iowa’s farmland is protected with no-till and cover crops.”
Crew is a critic of the multi-practice approach that is promoted and allowed in conservation plans. He says if everyone was required to no-till and plant cover crops, our soil erosion and water quality problems would be solved.
“Since soil erosion is caused by tillage, wouldn’t it make sense to eliminate tillage as a starting point?” he asks. “No-till should not be just another option on the list of approved practices by NRCS to reach water quality goals. Its use should be required as a prerequisite to qualify for cost-share payments from government programs for cover crops or other conservation practices.
“If every acre was no-tilled, phosphorus runoff would not be a factor,” Crew says. “And although nitrates escaping fields through tile lines might still be a problem, there is no doubt nitrate loads in water will be reduced overall because a significant percent of those nitrates come from surface runoff. Some researchers are convinced the nitrate concentration in tile drainage water is higher under no-till, which may be true since more nitrates are available to leach out. However, the answer is to plant cover crops along with using no-till. Cover crop roots will remove a significant amount of nitrates from groundwater.”
The increase in cover crop acreage needed in Iowa is huge to reach the goals set forth by Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. And cover crops have a long way to go before they are accepted as a standard practice by most farmers, including a lot of farmers who use no-till.
Crew believes it will take long-term studies to convince skeptical farmers that the benefits of cover crops will outweigh the cost of planting cover crops in the long run. “I’m personally convinced the long-term use of cover crops will prove absolutely necessary for maintaining and improving soil health,” he says.
Tie conservation to crop insurance?
Crew also proposes that no-till and cover crops be tied to crop insurance. “To qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance, farmers should be required to use no-till and to plant cover crops,” he says. “This was not part of the new 2018 Farm Bill. Certain lobby groups, including Farm Bureau, want no restrictions on farmers. But many farmers aren’t born with a conservation ethic. These farmers, because they use tillage and don’t use cover crops, are the reason for the need to have a nutrient reduction strategy.”
He points out that a proposal to reduce crop insurance premiums if the farmer used no-till farming and protection of a cover crop in the 2018 Farm Bill was soundly defeated. “I’m a Farm Bureau member and serve on the Clay County Farm Bureau board of directors,” Crew says. “But I’ve always criticized FB for their lack of a conservation ethic. The organization refuses to advocate for a stronger tie between using no-till and cover crops to qualify to receive government-subsidized benefits, such as cost-share and crop insurance.”
More information about the INRS can be found at NutrientStrategy.iastate.edu.
Letter to the Editor: Property tax credit needed for cover crops
I am writing to express alarm about rapid climate change. Scientists agree that climate change is occurring fast. The facts are overwhelming. Consequently, most mainstream Christian denominations and other religions are warning about carbon dioxide levels.
Scientific examination of Antarctic ice core sample readings reveals the last 800,000 years of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Those levels range from 180 to 280 parts per million of atmospheric concentration. Furthermore, the evidence shows this range mirroring the natural climate changes resulting from fluctuations of sun brightness and Earth’s axis tilt movements.
During the 1900s, Earth’s climate got out of order with the natural rhythm. Generated by manmade carbon emissions, this increasing greenhouse gas warms the Earth’s climate. In the 1950s, scientists began measuring carbon at 300 parts per million. This shows how fast the climate is changing. Today, we are at a carbon level of 410 parts per million. We are experiencing a warming climate well above anything experienced in the last 800,000 years.
Last November, a consortium of U.S. government agencies and researchers from universities that study our climate and related factors released a report that describes the situation today and concurs that something must be done. As farmers, we need to address some of our own underlying causes of rapid climate change. Farmers need to greatly increase the amount of acreage planted to cover crops to lock carbon into the soil and keep it out of the atmosphere. More cover crops are also needed to absorb nitrates and help improve water quality.
The expense of planting a greatly expanded amount of cover crops should not be heaped upon family farmers suffering financially from low crop prices. We need to lobby our state legislators to pass a bill that establishes an agriculture property tax credit applied to the acres planted to a cover crop. Just as the wind generators that dot our Iowa countryside need the breeze to swing the blades, farmers need a property tax credit to propel their cover crop endeavors. The result will benefit everyone.